Economy and Rona dominate agenda as Quebec national assembly resumes sitting

QUEBEC – The economy in general, and the friendly takeover of Rona Inc. by U.S. interests in particular, dominated Quebec’s question period Tuesday as the national assembly resumed sitting after its winter break.

The first question went to Parti Quebecois Leader Pierre Karl Peladeau, who asked Premier Philippe Couillard to explain how the sale of Rona to Lowe’s is good news for Quebec.

Couillard replied that Rona (TSX:RON) shareholders approve of the $3.2-billion transaction, which will see the hardware giant’s headquarters remain in the Montreal area.

“And I’d like to mention that for every Rona, there’s a Couche-Tard, a Saputo, a CGI,” Couillard said, reeling off the names of Quebec companies that have acquired foreign-based firms in recent years.

“Quebecers conquer markets and are successful abroad. We have an open economy and we’re sending signals that we work in an open economy.”

At a later news conference, Economy Minister Dominique Anglade said it will ultimately be up to the Competition Bureau and Investment Canada to decide whether the Rona-Lowe’s deal goes through.

“The agreement must be ratified by the federal government,” Anglade said. “What’s important for us is that our expectations are transmitted to the Canadian government.”

Anglade said she has met Sylvain Prud’homme, the Canadian president of Lowe’s, and federal Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains in recent days.

“My discussions with the federal minister were very positive but we can’t be naive either,” she said.

Lowe’s has promised to keep Rona’s headquarters in Boucherville, which is home to 1,100 employees, as well as the company’s brand and the “vast majority” of the current workforce.

But Prud’homme was unable to guarantee last week that all workers would keep their job.

Peladeau, meanwhile, said the number of head offices in Quebec dropped to 578 in 2011 from 862 in 2001 and that companies based in the province were becoming increasingly vulnerable because of the slumping Canadian dollar.

Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition for Quebec’s Future, later accused Couillard of failing to create quality jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector, since coming to power nearly two years ago.

In fact, 4,200 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Quebec in that period, Legault said.

Couillard argued that 49,000 jobs were created in Quebec in 2015 and that nearly 14,000 others saw the light of day last month.

His Liberals will be seeking over the next few years to fulfil a 2014 election promise of creating 250,000 jobs over five years. Anglade has been tasked with coming up with a strategy to spur economic growth to help achieve that goal.